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Can faith heal?

Billed as the largest gathering of humanity in recorded history, Maha Kumbh has commenced in Allahabad. Over the next few weeks, pilgrims will jostle to take a dip at Sangam—the confluence of two polluted rivers of the country, the Ganga and the Yamuna. Soma Basu reports on its impacts on the Sangam City and villages downstream.

Sometime in 1895 after visiting Kumbh Mela, Mark Twain wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and the frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear, I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act borne of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold white.” Surely, the American writer was left awestruck by the grandeur of the event. But given the event’s size as it is today and associated complexities one wonders whether the centuries-old Hindu festival would still have evoked similar sentiments in him.

Kumbh Mela is held every three years at one of the four locations—Prayag, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain—where it is believed that drops from a kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar of immortality were spilled as gods and demons struggled over it. The festival gains special significance at the end of the 12-year cycle. Called Maha Kumbh, it attracts the largest throng: 70 million devotees in 2001 made it the largest gathering in recorded history. This year, 2013, is that 12th year and the festival has begun at Prayag in Allahabad city of Uttar Pradesh. By the time it comes to an end on March 10, a staggering 100 million would have congregated at Sangam—confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. People who flock to Sangam are mostly those propelled by tradition or the urge to seek salvation. Legend has it that a dip in the holy confluence during Maha Kumbh will wash away sins of lifetime and previous births and help one attain moksha, the state of liberation from rebirth and sufferings. Then there are others who are drawn by the desire to witness the spectacular show of faith and experience the power of congregation.

The inaugural day of the 55-day congregation was marked by the first Shahi Snan (royal bath) of 13 akhadas, which represent different sects of sadhus. It began much before daybreak, with thousands of Naga sadhus, naked, carrying silver tridents, maces and swords, their faces doused in ash, their matted hair coiled like serpents upon their heads, sprinting into the chilly waters in religious ecstasy. There was a mad frenzy in the national and foreign media, with photographers rushing to get award-winning shots of the Naga sadhus. There were also heavily decked-up chariots, some in silver and gold, winding their way to the Sangam, with hundreds following in procession on foot, beating drums, blowing conch shells and waving saffron flags.

It was a unique blend of austerity and opulence. The sadhus reserve the right to take the first dip in the confluence at an astrologically appropriate time. This year it was 5.15 in the morning. Elaborate arrangements were made at the ghat (bathing place along rivers) reserved for the sadhus and religious leaders. The fraternity was led by Mahanirvani akhada and followed by Niranjani, Anand and Juna akhadas among others. A ghat was reserved for politicians, celebrities and those considered VIP by the administration.

The inaugural day also laid bare how a sacramental congress could be turned into a fanfare of muck and mire, and exposed gaping holes in the arrangements made by the mela authorities for the world’s largest gathering of people.

Cleanliness v godliness

More than 11 million people who followed the godmen to take the ritual bath had to jostle for space at 34 ghats, extended over a little more than one kilometre. A holy bath was no less than an achievement given that each one got about 13.5 seconds to take a bath, offer prayers and move out.

Ahead of the Maha Kumbh, sadhus had protested over inadequate water in the Ganga. Tirth Maryada Raksha Samiti, a conglomerate of religious organisations, demanded additional water be released to ensure enough clean water for the holy dip. They asked the government to set up a cell to monitor river flow during the gathering. There were also interventions from the Allahabad High Court, which is hearing public interest petitions on the Ganga pollution, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who heads the National Ganga Basin Authority.

Following the pressure, on December 20, Jawed Usmani, chief secretary of the Uttar Pradesh government directed officials to release 71 cumec (cubic metre per second) of water from Narora barrage in Bulandshahr, from January 1 to February 28. The barrage is more than 500 km upstream of Sangam. The supply will be reduced to 42.6 cumec from March 1 until March 10 since fewer people are expected and only one Shahi Snan would remain. The quality of water at the confluence improved within 10 days. Even then it barely meets the bathing standards.

The monitoring station downstream Sangam shows several parameters of water quality have improved, though they barely meet the standards. For instance, the BOD (biochemical oxygen demands, indicating the amount of organic pollutants in water) was 4mg/l. Water above 3mg/l BOD is not suitable for bathing.

But pollution can be no deterrent for a devotee who must take a sip of the holy water as part of ritual. He must also fill bottles with the Ganga water to carry home as gifts for friends and relatives.


“How can the Ganga be dirty?” asked Pinaki Ghosh, a resident of Kolkata. “People store Ganga water in bottles for years but it never smells. Water from any other source, if kept in a container, starts smelling within weeks. There must be a reason to it.”

Anshu Patel, a resident of Vadodara in Gujarat, said, “We have read articles about the water being dirty but there are several researches that show the water has healing properties.” He escorted his parents for a holy dip at Sangam. Enthusiasm was palpable among devotees and tourists who turned up in record numbers on the day of the first Shahi Snan. The mela authorities say they are anticipating 10 per cent increase in the number of pilgrims from the last Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001. On important bathing days, which include the days of Shahi Snan, their number may go up (see graph).

To host them, a vast tent-city has sprung that has been given the status of a district for the mela period. An IAS officer, Mani Prasad Mishra, has been given the charge of managing the festival. The mela authorities have increased the fair area: from 15 sq km divided into 11 sectors in 2001 to 19 sq km and 14 sectors. Tents, hospitals, electricity lines, mobile towers, sanitation facilities, water pipelines, overhead tanks, pontoon bridges and a maze of roads; they have all been set up at a whopping Rs 256 crore. The congregation is 80 times bigger than the host city of Allahabad, five times of the country’s commercial hub Mumbai and 2.5 times of Tokyo.

Managing such a huge population for nearly two months is no easy task. Apart from the challenge of providing them with basic amenities like food, water, electricity and sanitation facility, there is always the risk of stampede and disease outbreak.

A press release issued by the authorities claims that extra arrangements have been made to ensure cleanliness and hygienic atmosphere in the Sangam City to prevent any disease outbreak. But on the first day of the festival, it took only six hours to turn the fair ground, prepared for two months, into a cesspool.

Holy ground turns unholy

Soon after paying offerings to the goddess Ganga, the devotees had left their mark in the form of urine, faeces and plastic at the confluence, which was illuminating with sodium lamps till daybreak. Despite a ban, innumerable polythene bags, plastic bottles of ghee, honey and even beer cans were seen floating in the river or strewn on the sandbank formed in the middle of the river.

Despite the administration making claims that 10,000 people have been assigned for waste disposal, there were just 50-odd people picking rubbish from ghats after the crowd started dwindling. Officials said they had made pits of one square metre at several places for solid waste disposal.

They were too busy with the security arrangements and controlling crowd to prevent people from disposing of waste into the river. Even if they could prevent waste, what about the flowers, ghee and other scented assortments offered to the goddess Ganga?

Going by a conservative estimate, even an insignificant 100 g of ritualistic offerings by each of the 11 million people who attended the first day of Maha Kumbh would have resulted in 1,100 tonnes of solid waste. To put it into perspective, Allahabad generates 500 tonnes of solid waste daily.

The state government handout boasted 47,000 toilets, which include 35,000 dry toilets and 7,500 eco-trench toilets where excreta gets collected in a tank and is treated with microbes. About 1,000 biodigester toilets were also promised.

Based on technologies developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and IIT Kanpur, this toilet employs bacteria to feed on faeces in the biodigester tank and degrade it, and costs Rs 8,65,000. But the promised number of biodigesters are yet to be delivered.

Till the last week of January the Mela authorities had procured only 78 such toilets. Mishra said the delay in procurement was because the toilet is not manufactured on a large scale. Three biodigesters that Down To Earth could spot were locked. Just like 2001, open defecation was widespread.

By noon, toilets started overflowing and the visitors were greeted with stench from open garbage pits and water holes filled with urine and human excreta. People started using cubicles, made for women to change clothes after bathing, as toilets. Despite a Central law banning manual scavenging, the authorities have employed people for scooping faeces out of dry toilets and sewage pits. But they had to race against time (see ‘Scavenging still a reality’).

The government claims to have laid 570 km of water pipelines and is providing 80 million litres of water a day (mld) to the pilgrims. But thousands of kalpwasis (pilgrims who stay on the riverside in tents for a month and spend their time meditating and performing rituals) complain of water shortage and foul drinking water. Jal Nigam officials admit they are supplying water from deep bore wells without filtration. However, they say, there is enough tap connection to cater to the needs.

But this is a far cry going by the WHO standards, which say a person needs at least 40 litres a day for sustenance. The water provision at the Sangam City works out to be less than two litres per person per day after taking leakage losses into account, or even lesser as sanitary workers use the water to spray on roads for settling dust. With 20,000 tap connections, there is only one tap per 2,000 people in the Sangam City. Pilgrims complain that in several pockets pipelines are yet to be laid. They walk for about three kilometres to fetch drinking water.

This, along with other unsanitary practices, is keeping the medical department busy. Doctors at Main Hospital say they are receiving a large number of patients with stomach ailments. In one of the 14 sectors, about 50 cases of diarrhoea were reported in the first week. There is just 0.1 bed per 10,000 people against the national average of nine, and 0.04 doctor per 10,000 people against the national average of six.

Yet pilgrims feel blissful amid the chaos. “We have been attending Kumbh Melas since 1989. Dirty toilets and cramped ghats do not make much difference to us,” says Pradip Agarwal, a resident of Allahabad. “A dip in the river rejuvenates us.” Or, is it the power of congregation?

Based on studies of melas on the Ganga, Indian and British researchers have published a paper in peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One in October 2012. It argues that despite cold weather, endless noise, poor food and risk of disease, devotees who attend such events and participate in collective rites have higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing. Maybe, the study holds the answer to Mark Twain’s quest.

Soma Basu

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